What is it about Rochester that hockey players can’t resist? Is it because the chilly winters are reminiscent of those in their native Canada? Perhaps they have a fondness for the fashionable red, white and blue color scheme? Or is it the fact that the air around the Blue Cross Arena perpetually smells like the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que?
Regardless of the reason, numerous Amerks have ventured off into the hockey world to further their careers, only to find themselves back in Rochester years later for a second stint with the hometown team.
Though most second-time Amerks only spend only a season or two away, others spend many satisfying years elsewhere in hockey but jump at the chance to renew their fond memories of the city. While current Amerks head coach Randy Cunneyworth spent a franchise-high 13 seasons away before returning in the late 1990s, another current Amerk didn’t have to wait that long.
Rochester Americans winger Jason Dawe last wore an Amerks sweater during the 1995-96 season. He began his professional career with the Amerks during the 1993 Calder Cup Playoffs, and split the following two seasons between the parent Buffalo Sabres and Rochester. During those two seasons, Dawe played 92 games with the Amerks and collected 49 goals and 33 assists for 82 points. He remembers his time in Rochester fondly, honing his skills under the winningest head coach in Amerks history.
“John Van Boxmeer and Terry Martin were my coaches. They were pretty hard on the young guys, trying to get them to be better,” he recalls. “Basically [I remember] how the city embraced the team and how good the organization was to the players.”
Dawe got his first extended stay in the NHL during the second half of the 1993-94 season. He stayed through the playoffs and had the experience of a lifetime, assisting on Dave Hannan‘s goal in the fourth overtime of Game Six of the Sabres’ first round playoff match-up against the New Jersey Devils.
Despite sticking with the Sabres through the lockout-shortened 1994-95 NHL season, he began the 1995-96 season in Rochester. After a quick start, Dawe was called up to Buffalo and left Rochester behind for the last time. That year he had his best season as a Sabre, tallying 25 goals and 50 points in 67 games. He followed up that performance with another solid year in 1996-97, but struggled through the first half of the next season, his fifth in a Sabres uniform.
On March 24, 1998, Jason Dawe was traded to the New York Islanders for Jason Holland and Paul Kruse. Though he was frustrated in Buffalo at the time, Dawe now wishes he would have done things a bit differently.
“I asked to be traded,” he explains. “But now looking back on it I probably shouldn’t have. As things went along [after the trade], I realized how good it was for me there, how good of a situation it was personally.”
Dawe never seemed to regain his scoring touch despite the new start on Long Island, and less than nine months after the trade, he was picked up on waivers by the Montreal Canadiens. As he pulled on the famous Canadiens jersey, the North York, Ont., native fulfilled the dream of many a young Canadian — to play for one of the most revered teams in hockey history.
“Growing up I was a Maple Leaf fan, so Toronto probably would have been my first choice,” Dawe says. “Hockey’s like a religion in Canada, so if you can’t play for Toronto, Montreal’s the second place you’d want to play.”
He played 37 games for Montreal, collecting four goals and five assists. He became a free agent over the summer and opted to sign with the Nashville Predators in October 1999, and began the season with the Milwaukee Admirals. In February, he had to pick up and move once again, this time due to a trade to the New York Rangers. Though the trade sent him to his fifth organization in three seasons, it marked the end of a rather nomadic period in his hockey career, as he stayed within the Rangers system for the next two years.
“I was hoping to find something secure, but it wasn’t enjoyable moving around,” Dawe says of his quest to find a steady NHL job. “I ended up having a daughter at the time — she was born in Montreal — and once that happened it made it harder to move around a lot. You obviously want to get settled as much as possible.”
Though Dawe only saw four games of NHL action during his time with the Rangers organization, he found his niche as a steady contributor with the Rangers‚ AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. When he joined the team for the last portion of the 1999-2000 season, Hartford was near the top of the league and finished the season with the best record in the AHL. He provided an additional offensive spark over the last 27 games of the regular season, and became a regular contributor during the Wolf Pack’s playoff run, scoring 10 goals and adding seven assists in 21 games.
Hartford pulled out a dramatic Game Seven overtime win in the conference finals and headed into the Calder Cup Finals against Dawe’s old team, the Rochester Americans. The Pack defeated the Amerks in six games and captured the Cup on Blue Cross Arena ice, where Dawe’s professional career began.
“It’s a good feeling,” he says. “That was my first time winning a championship. You put your body on the line so much for so long, and just to get rewarded in the end was such a great feeling. I can’t even imagine winning the Stanley Cup; winning the Calder Cup was just a great experience, something I’ll never forget.”
Dawe went from an extreme high to an extreme low, as he lost all but four games of the following season to two separate injuries. He rebounded nicely in 2001-02 with his most productive season in the pros, accumulating 28 goals and 37 assists in 79 games for the Wolf Pack.
A free agent once again in the summer of 2002, Dawe signed with the St. Louis Blues and spent another season in the AHL, this time with the Worcester IceCats, where he ranked fourth on the team in scoring with 45 points.
This past summer, Dawe made the decision to give European hockey a try. He began the season with Karpat Oulu in the Finnish Elite League, and only collected one assist in 15 games. The experience didn’t turn out as well as Dawe hoped.
“I knew eventually there would come a time when I might have to make that decision [to go to Europe], especially with what’s supposed to happen next season with the [NHL] lockout,” Dawe explains. “I was kind of looking at it as a travel experience, but I think we experienced it for four months, and that was enough for our family. I don’t think we’d do it again.”
With the decision made to come back to North America, Dawe began exploring his options. “I was getting bought out of my contract in Finland, and my agent called me and said Rochester possibly might be interested. I leaped off my couch,” he recalls with a laugh. “I didn’t think there was a chance at all, and then all of a sudden Houston wanted to sign me.”
The AHL’s Houston Aeros beat the Rochester to the punch, but the Amerks got the last laugh as they plucked Dawe off waivers a couple days later. He was in Grand Rapids on his first road trip with Houston when he got the call that he was headed back to Rochester.
“I think he was surprised,” says Amerks General Manager Jody Gage of his first conversation with Dawe. “But he was relieved and happy that he had a chance to come closer to home.”
As much as it is a homecoming for Dawe, much has changed in the eight years since his last stint with the Amerks. Now 30 years old, he brings back with him his wife, Rayna, a native of the Buffalo area, as well as two daughters, Ashley and Jessica. A rookie no more, Dawe carries with him a bevy of experience from his travels around the hockey world. He’s no longer just a supporting cast member behind the Amerks’ offensive stars — he is one of the offensive stars. He has carried the pressure well in his first 15 games back in Rochester, picking up six goals and 10 assists for 16 points. He’s settled in on a line with another second-time Amerk, Domenic Pittis. Dawe is grateful to have found a linemate he jelled with so quickly.
“It’s been a lot of fun, especially since when I was in Finland I wasn’t producing at all offensively. So to come over here and have things start clicking right away, it’s made the game a lot more fun.” Jason Dawe is happy to be back in Rochester. He can’t quite put his finger on what makes this place so special, but all he knows is that he’s glad to be back.
“Throughout professional hockey, certain situations are better than others — you’re more comfortable in certain situations. For whatever reason, I had some success here earlier on in this organization, and for whatever reason, I feel comfortable here.”